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How Long? An Invitation to Advent

2018-11-26

Advent arrives this weekend, marking the beginning of a new year and opening our season of preparation for Christmas. Like a lot of church nerds, I may be willing to say that Advent is my favorite season of the church year. I am geeked to get out the candles and break out the Advent music

(For those who are curious, here is my Advent playlist)

But Advent can be a confusing time, because on the calendar it coincides with a secular season called “the holidays.” Although they occur at the same time and share some superficial branding elements, Advent and the holiday season are in fact two very different things.

Struggling to tell them apart? Enter the prophet Habakkuk.

In the church, Advent is our season of discontent, a time to feel ill-at-ease, a moment when we measure the long distance between the world we have been promised and the world we as it is.

Advent is driven by Habakkuk’s question: “How long?”

Habakkuk 1:1-7; 2:1-4; 3:[3b-6], 17-19

1The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

5Look at the nations, and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told. 6For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. 7Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves.

2I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

3God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. 4The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden. 5Before him went pestilence, and plague followed close behind.6He stopped and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble. The eternal mountains were shattered; along his ancient pathways the everlasting hills sank low. 17Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

Habakkuk is one of the Minor Prophets –so called because of the relative brevity of their books when compared to the “major” prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Like Jeremiah (whose work we sampled last week), Habakkuk lives and works during the Babylonian crisis of the 6th century.

Typically, prophets point out the injustice being done by the people, summoning them to repent and return to God. But Habakkuk has a different MO. He addresses himself to God, and demands answers for the injustice of the world. Habakkuk grapples with what the theologians call theodicy ­–the question of why a good God would allow evil in this world. The prophet puts it this way: 2O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

And it sounds a lot like an accusation.

The text as presented by the Narrative Lectionary takes us pretty much through the entirety of the book. It breaks out like this:

1:1-14                          Habakkuk’s first complaint: God does not act in the face of injustice.

1:5-7                            God’s response: I will send the Chaldeans (Babylonians) as my judgement on                                                   injustice.

2:1-4                            God responds to the prophet: Make the vision plain.

3:[3b-6], 17-19          Concluding hymn of praise.

 

So what do we learn from Habakkuk about the question of theodicy? And how does it relate to Advent?

Here are some fragmentary thoughts:

Complaining to God about injustice is a biblical form of prayer. Somewhere along the way, some of us may have picked up the idea that talking to God is a lot like talking to a high-ranking elected official. One must be polite and always express acceptable sentiments.

But this is not what a lot of prayer looks like in the Bible. From Abraham dickering with God over the judgement of Sodom to Job pouring out his lament to Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, those who have been closest to God have often been the noisiest complainers.

In Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about the role of dissatisfaction in fueling work for social transformation: “Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the fires of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until they who live on the outskirts of Hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heap of history and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into the bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.”

This is what biblical justice-seeking looks like: telling the truth about the state of the world and refusing to settle for anything less than all that God has promised.

And Advent serves a particular purpose: to stir up our yearning for the promise of God. Like Habakkuk, we ask, “How long?” In our hymn we pray, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

 

But we have a part to play. I am intrigued by 2:2: 2Then the Lordanswered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.  It seems to me that this verse is often taken out of context and turned into a Harvard Business Review leadership aphorism. Good to great! Be a hedgehog! Make the vision plain!

 However, in the context of Habakkuk’s project, this verse suggests something intriguing. We see terrible injustice in the world. We can and we should cry out, complain and lament to God. We can and should join the prophet’s cry: How long? But that is not all that we can do. We can make the vision plain –speak and (more importantly) live in ways that spell out the alternative, that articulate, elucidate and illustrate the nature of the reign of God. Let everyone know what God really wants.

Advent is our season to get ready for the promise of God –by voicing our lament at the current state of the world, by making plain the plans God has for us. It is our time to join in the ancient song.

 

How long Lord?

 Come Emmanuel.

 

 

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Pilgrims, Patriarchy and Humpty Dumpty: Thoughts for the Conclusion of the Liturgical Year

2018-11-19

 

This week’s blog post will be a bit of a grab-bag hot rambling mess, owing to the fact that this is a transitional point in the church year. Nov 25 marks the end of this church year. A new year begins on Sunday, December 2 –the first Sunday of Advent.

This is always a busy time for Plymouth.

The liturgical year’s end tends to coincide with Thanksgiving, which is a big deal for us, given our Pilgrim heritage. So as I think about the week ahead, I have all of the following things bouncing around in my brain:

  • Thanksgiving and Plymouth’s Pilgrim service.
  • The End of the Church Year/Reign of Christ
  • The Narrative Lectionary text for the weekend: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

Maybe the best thing would be to say a little about each one.

 

THANKSGIVING/PILGRIM SERVICE

It was Charles Houser –Senior Minister during the Eisenhower administration—who instituted Plymouth’s annual Pilgrim service on Thanksgiving Day. The timing makes sense. Two significant events took place in 1957: Plymouth celebrated its 100th birthday, and Plymouth’s denomination—the Congregational Christian Church—became part of a new denomination, the United Church of Christ. So the church began to celebrate its Pilgrim heritage in a worship service that features choir and clergy in Pilgrim dress and a reenactment of 17th-century worship.  Many years, the Governor of Iowa would be on hand to read the state’s official Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Why did we start doing this? I think it was, to a large extent, about claiming what intellectuals might call a “usable past” –an account of our origins that could help to shed some light on current-day questions about who we are and how we should live. The Pilgrims seemed to offer some helpful answers to these questions. To claim our Pilgrim heritage is to see ourselves as both independent and interdependent –principled enough to cross an ocean for the sake of our religious beliefs, but open enough to accept the natives’ gifts of welcome and hospitality.

But here is an important thought: a usable past and historical accuracy are two very different things. The service has never been historically accurate. (The hourglass, for example, makes no sense). But it has served as kind of mirror –a story about our origins. And if it serves that purpose, something should become very clear: the service must evolve in order to endure. Once upon a time, member of Boy Scout Troop 50 would show up for the service in full-on “native” dress: loincloths, headdresses, war paint. Someone at some point must have said, “This seems insensitive. Maybe we should stop doing this.”

The service had to evolve in order to endure.

That logic governs my decision—and it was my decision, no one else’s—to remove the guns from this years’ service. I doubt they will return so long as I am Senior Minister. Maybe the Pilgrims carried guns to worship; maybe they did not. But in a country that has experienced 307 mass shootings in the past 323 days, it simply makes no sense to tote guns into a worship service.

And here is the piece I really struggle with: the service may need a little more historical accuracy in order to continue to be useable. With each passing year, more and more people are growing aware of the ways in which the “traditional first Thanksgiving” narrative can serve to obscure some really troubling aspects of our history. The arrival of the Mayflower opened a truly horrific chapter in the history of the North American continent, one in which European peoples took land and committed genocide against the people who were already there.

Can we make room for that reality in our Pilgrim service? I think we have to; I confess I have not yet figured out how exactly to do it. If there is an answer, I suspect it will have something to do with the connection between Thanksgiving and truth-telling. We cannot truly give thanks for all of God’s blessings without telling the truth about ourselves and the people from whom we are descended.

We need a useable past. That means the service must evolve in order to endure.

END OF THE YEAR/REIGN OF CHRIST

Just a quick word about Sunday, November 25. This does not often happen, but this year the Sunday after Thanksgiving is NOT the 1st Sunday of Advent. In 1925, Pope Pius XI decided the last Sunday of the liturgical year should be set aside as “The Feast of Christ the King.” And in the Western Church, Christians are encouraged to reflect on the theme of God’s sovereignty.

Congregationalists do not really go in for sovereignty.

We haven’t traditionally paid much attention to Christ the King at Plymouth, for a couple of reasons: it tends to coincide with Thanksgiving, we tend to be leery of hierarchy, feminist theology has taught us to be suspicious of patriarchal metaphors for God, etc.

But I think there may be a way to come at it that honors our values. The God of Jesus Christ is a lot like Humpty-Dumpty Remember the passage from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass:

  “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said. 
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

When Humpty Dumpty uses a word, he has to tell you what it means. The same goes for God. To call Christ our king is not to envision Christ along the lines of an earthly tyrant; it is rather to define the word “king” exclusively in reference to the life and teachings of Jesus. He does not so much claim sovereignty as subvert the concept.

I can get behind that.

Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

Oh, and the Narrative Lectionary has assigned a text for the weekend –which I will preach on Saturday the 25th. So let’s take just a quick look at that.

4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” 6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” 9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

7The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” 5For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,7then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. 8Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!” —only to go on doing all these abominations? 11Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

I think this is straightforward enough, but let’s do a little context setting.

After two weeks in the 8th century, we skip ahead to the 6th The nation is in a very different place and so the prophet has a very different ministry. In the 6th century BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the nation of Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem. That trauma informs the ministry of Jeremiah, whose prophetic career came before, during and after the fall of Judah. The Book of Jeremiah contains a staggering diversity of material –sermons, songs, poems and more. Taken together, they reflect the difficulty of those days.

Sometimes remembered as the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah must convey a hard message: Babylon will prevail.

In this reading, we get two snippets –his call story, from chapter 1, and then a sample of his preaching.

The call story claims that God had a plan for Jeremiah before Jeremiah was (as we used to say) a twinkle in his daddy’s eye. He did not choose this work; it chose him. And that call is all the authorization he needs –no diploma, no ordination, no pedigree. Just the call of God on his life.

And it is a hard call, as the second section of the text makes clear. The people of Jerusalem have grown complacent and maybe a little smug. The magnificent Temple seems a sign of God’s favor. But Jeremiah knows better than that. God does not care about beautiful architecture or impressive institutions. Those things can only be a means to an end –living the way that God wants.

That was Jeremiah’s message. No wonder he was not popular.

See you in church!

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Fear, Fake News…and Pie

2018-11-12

 

Ready for something completely different?

This week’s Scripture lesson is unfamiliar, full of seemingly strange and difficult names. It may take a little more work to see what is going on here.

But the work will be worth it! As the story comes into focus, it seems shockingly relevant to us. This is a story about fear, fake news and trusting God anyway.

Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. 2The king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. He stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller’s Field. 3And there came out to him Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph, the recorder. 

13Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the Lord by saying, The Lord will surely deliver us; this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.’ 16Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me; then everyone of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree and drink water from your own cistern, 17until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18Do not let Hezekiah mislead you by saying, The Lord will save us. Has any of the gods of the nations saved their land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20Who among all the gods of these countries have saved their countries out of my hand, that the Lord should save Jerusalem out of my hand?’” 

37When King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the Lord. 2And he sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. 3They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. 4It may be that the Lord your God heard the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.” 5When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.’”

Feeling confused? You’re not alone. But let’s see if we can dig into this a little.

We are still in the 8th century before the birth of Christ. The Assyrian crisis—which we discussed last week—has entered its most dangerous days. The Assyrian Army—the army of King Sennacherib—has laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. It sure looks like the end is near.

(Sidebar: Here is a fun fact from Ronald E. Clements commentary in The Access Bible: The Assyrians were very proud of their campaign against the nation of Judah. In fact, they commemorated it carved wall panels decorating Sennacherib’s palace. You can see those panels today at The British Museum).

In the section beginning at 36:13, we actually hear Assyrian propaganda. Rabshakeh—emissary of the Assyrian king—stands and calls out to the people of Judah in their own language, urging surrender. I find the part about the speech being in Hebrew especially chilling. In his commentary on this passage, John Calvin says: “No enemies are more destructive than those who speak the same language as ourselves.”

He makes a couple of arguments: King Hezekiah cannot deliver you. If you surrender now, you can come out and eat and drink your fill. (The people hearing this speech are probably starving under siege conditions). Also, says Rabshakeh, Hezekiah’s alliance with the Egyptians will not save you. Your god will not save you. No nation has been spared by the mighty Assyrian army. No god has triumphed over their gods.

What makes you think your God will be any different?

(Another sidebar: I don’t have any scholarly backup on this, but Rabshakeh’s remarks in verse 16 sure sound like a parody of Micah 4:4: but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. These words appear in George Washington’s Farewell Address to the nation, which Lin Manuel Miranda set to music).

This is tough stuff –and King Hezekiah has a big reaction. Tearing his clothes, the sackcloth –these are signs of grief. Public mourning. But Hezekiah is remembered as a good and faithful king; this story reminds us why. In the hour of crisis, he grieves and then he goes to the prophet Isaiah. Once there, he pours out his bitterness and asks Isaiah to pray.

But note Isaiah’s response: DO NOT BE AFRAID.

God has got this.

Long story short, Sennacherib went home and was assassinated by his sons. Jerusalem survived the siege. Hezekiah saw the hand of God in these events.

And that is the story.

What will we do with this story?

First things first: this is a week when I really appreciate the Narrative Lectionary. This is a story that never occurs in the Revised Common Lectionary but it seems so rich for preaching, touching on themes of fear, faith and propaganda. If I don’t preach a good sermon this Sunday –well, that’s not on Isaiah.

Of course, we have some family business to which we will tend. It’s Pie Weekend –the end of our stewardship season, when we bring in our pledges cards and bring some pie to share as well. It is a time to give thanks to God for all of God’s goodness to us and commit to all that God has yet to do.

See you in church!

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What Does God Want?

2018-11-05

 

It is a question that some of us never consider.

It is a question that some of us cannot escape.

Throughout history, some of us have killed each other over different answers to this question.

What does God want?

This week, the Prophet Micah is trying to tell us.

Micah 5:2-5a, 6:6-8

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

    who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

 

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

 

This week we encounter a new kind of literature: the prophetic oracle. The Book of Micah collects sayings/speeches/sermons attributed to the prophet of that name. He lived and worked in the southern nation of Judah during the last quarter of the 8th century BCE. Unlike Isaiah—an urban sophisticate and political power player—Micah is a member of the laboring classes and a resident of a small rural village.

What’s more, Micah seems to take little interest in the international crisis unfolding on his doorstep. During this time, the northern nation of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. And Assyria menaced the southern nation of Judah as well.

But Micah has his own agenda and does not seem driven by the headlines. In this midterm election week, make of that what you will.

Micah’s message can be summed up pretty simply: justice matters! What God cares about is not religious ritual or sacrificial offerings; God wants just and fair dealings.

We see this emphasis on justice in our two selections from Micah. The first (5:2-5a) has been seized upon by Christian interpreters who like to see it as some sort of prediction of the birth of Jesus. For a whole host of reasons, I am not a fan of Christian appropriating Jewish scripture for their own purposes. In this case, doing so means missing the more immediate and obvious meaning: Micah expects the Davidic monarchy to be restored. And in describing that restoration, he paints a picture of the ideal political ruler: a shepherd king, whose first priority is not self-aggrandizement but the well-being of all the people.

Political power, when gained, should be used to promote human flourishing. That is still good advice.

Our second portion contains some of the most famous material in the entire Hebrew Bible:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,

In context, this is Micah’s answer to the question of what God wants. And it is s disarmingly simple answer to what has been a hotly contested question.

What does God want? Just think of all the different ways the human race has answered that question. What does God want?

  • God wants you to sacrifice an animal.
  • God wants you to build a temple.
  • God wants you to abstain from certain foods.
  • God wants you to believe six impossible things before breakfast
  • God wants you to save sex for marriage.
  • God wants you to avoid saying curse words.
  • God wants you to mind your manners.
  • God wants you to join the church.
  • God wants you to serve on a committee.
  • God wants you to hate people who are not like us.
  • God wants you to kill the infidel.

And so on. But in chapter 6, verse 8 Micah cuts right through to the heart of the thing:

 

What does God?

 

Justice. Kindness. Humble walking with God.

 

It is as simple as that. It is as hard as that.

 

What does God want?

 

See you in church.